The British Grand Prix, a race steeped in tradition, has seen its fair share of moments that have shaped the history of the sport. From being chosen to kick-off the then newly-formed Formula One World Championship in 1950, to bearing witness to the legendary Ferrari squad’s first race win; from home hero Nigel Mansell’s epic 1987 race win at the heights of Mansellmania to Michael Schumacher’s controversial pit-lane victory in 1998, the British Grand Prix has seen it all.
With the race just around the corner, I thought it would be apt to look back at one of several such moments, when a young Englishman by the name of Stirling Moss, now a legend in his own right, made history by becoming the first ever Briton to win his home race.
The year was 1955. At the time Moss, whose talent was plain for all to see but was somewhat limited by the uncompetitive and unreliable cars he had been driving, had just been offered the dream drive – a seat alongside double world champion Juan Manuel Fangio at the Mercedes-Benz works team that had impressed on its return to top-flight racing a year ago.
The 25-year-old Englishman hadn’t had anything in the way of any major success in Grand Prix racing at the time, and though the German marque’s legendary motorsport boss, Alfred Neubauer, was convinced of Moss’ ability, he wanted to see how Moss coped with a competitive car before signing him as part of Mercedes’ works effort.
“What happened was my father called up Neubauer and said, ‘look would you consider my son to join the team?’” Moss recalled in a conversation with Steve Rider on Sky Sport’s Legends of F1 programme.
“This was 1953, I think, we had heard that they were coming out in 1954. And Neubauer said to him, ‘look we’ve seen how well he goes but he’s driving not very quick cars. We’d like to know what he could do in a competitive car.’”
“And so my father then went down to Maserati and said to Maserati, ‘will you sell us a car?’ Which they did and they said ‘we’ll keep the car up to date and anything that we develop you can have’ – we’d buy it — and so I got a 250F Maser, it’s a lovely car.”
And though Moss’ Maserati 250F — painted British racing green by the fiercely patriotic Englishman — didn’t yield any wins in 1954, his feats behind the wheel, which included an impressive drive in that year’s Italian Grand Prix at Monza where Moss was on course for the win until his car began to lose oil pressure, were enough to convince Neubauer to offer Moss the works drive alongside Fangio for the 1955 season.
Moss has often spoken of his respect for Fangio. The two shared a great camaraderie and though, like any top driver, Moss was an extremely competitive individual, he was perfectly happy to follow in Fangio’s wheel-tracks and learn from the Old Master. A works drive alongside Fangio offered him the opportunity to do just that.
“The best classroom of all time, I’m convinced, was the spot about two car lengths behind Juan Manuel Fangio,” Moss is quoted as saying in a biography authored by Ken Purdy titled All But My Life. “I learned more there than I ever did anywhere else.”
Mercedes got their 1955 season off to a strong start with Fangio claiming victory on home soil at the opening round in Argentina. Fangio had added a further three wins to his tally that year, with Ferrari’s Maurice Trintignant claiming the one win at Monaco, by the time the circus arrived at Aintree on the outskirts of Liverpool for the British Grand Prix, the fifth round of the season.
Moss had set the fastest time in practice and started on pole ahead of Fangio. Fangio got the better start, however, and led from Moss at the end of the first lap. But Moss, driving hard, was right in Fangio’s wheel-tracks — harrying the Argentinian before moving into the lead only a few laps later.
“…I didn’t have as good a start as Fangio. Anyway, I dropped back a little bit, then I managed to catch him up, and I managed to pass him. And then I went as hard as I could,” Moss said in the Sky Sports interview.
The two Mercedes set a furious pace at the front in a riveting battle and swapped positions once more. Fangio was now in front but not for long as Moss reclaimed the lead, never to lose it again.
In the end the two cars crossed the line side-by-side in a formation finish with Moss just edging Fangio by two-tenths of a second to win his debut race and become the first British driver to win the British Grand Prix.
“I just led to the flag by 0.2 seconds, with his car’s nose about level with my steering wheel. I had just won my first Grand Epreuve, and become the first Briton to win the British Grand Prix,” Moss is quoted as saying in an extract from My Cars, My Career reproduced in Formula One: The Autobiography edited by Gerald Donaldson.
Given the close margin of the win, many observers thought Fangio, in a magnanimous gesture, had backed off just a tad bit allowing his younger team-mate to win his home race. But, ever the gentleman, Fangio wouldn’t take anything away from Moss on what was clearly a very special day for him.
“I said to him quite often – ‘Did you let me win it?’ Because he was the sort of guy who would. He would have said ‘look it’s Stirling’s home Grand Prix, what the hell I’ve got so many others.’ And he said ‘no, no,’ he said ‘it was your day.’”
“Well it was my day winning. So whether it was my day because he backed off a bit I don’t know. I truly don’t know. Because he’s such a gentleman he would never have said anything that wasn’t right.”